Magazine article Newsweek International

In a State of Suspense

Magazine article Newsweek International

In a State of Suspense

Article excerpt

Arafat postpones Independence Day--for now

Talal Abu Dayyeh glumly puts a stack of folded Palestinian flags back on the shelf. The Gaza merchant had expected his PLO Flag shop to do a land-office business this week. For months Yasir Arafat had been talking up plans to declare an independent Palestinian state on May 4. But now the Palestinian president has decided against such a unilateral move on the eve of Israel's general elections. "Even the Palestinian Authority didn't order any flags for May 4," says Abu Dayyeh. "After the elections I hope there'll be more demand."

No one knows when the flag seller's day will come. The General Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization voted last week to table its debate on statehood until after Israel's May 17 elections. PLO officials feared that any decision--for immediate statehood or against- -would play into the hands of Israel's current prime minister. If they voted no, Benjamin Netanyahu could claim success for his hardball policies. If they voted yes, the Likud leader had vowed to junk the peace process and formally annex all occupied land not under official Palestinian control--that is, almost the whole West Bank. Arafat doesn't want to do anything to hinder Netanyahu's chief rival, Ehud Barak, whose moderate Labor Party is running nostril-by-nostril with Likud in the latest opinion polls. Nabil Shaath, one of Arafat's top ministers, says: "We would like to see a government come out of these elections that is committed to peace."

Most observers say the threats of both Arafat and Netanyahu were pure bluff. Neither man wants the bloodshed that would follow the scrapping of the Oslo accord. Even so, the PLO chairman spent much of the last two months jetting from capital to capital for urgent talks, squeezing a nice diplomatic payoff from world powers for putting off his statehood threat. …

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